Total and Subgenomic RNA Viral Load in Patients Infected With SARS-CoV-2 Alpha, Delta, and Omicron Variants

for the Investigating Respiratory Viruses in the Acutely Ill (IVY) Network

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) genomic and subgenomic RNA levels are frequently used as a correlate of infectiousness. The impact of host factors and SARS-CoV-2 lineage on RNA viral load is unclear. Methods: Total nucleocapsid (N) and subgenomic N (sgN) RNA levels were measured by quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-qPCR) in specimens from 3204 individuals hospitalized with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) at 21 hospitals. RT-qPCR cycle threshold (Ct) values were used to estimate RNA viral load. The impact of time of sampling, SARS-CoV-2 variant, age, comorbidities, vaccination, and immune status on N and sgN Ct values were evaluated using multiple linear regression. Results: Mean Ct values at presentation for N were 24.14 (SD 4.53) for non-variants of concern, 25.15 (SD 4.33) for Alpha, 25.31 (SD 4.50) for Delta, and 26.26 (SD 4.42) for Omicron. N and sgN RNA levels varied with time since symptom onset and infecting variant but not with age, comorbidity, immune status, or vaccination. When normalized to total N RNA, sgN levels were similar across all variants. Conclusions: RNA viral loads were similar among hospitalized adults, irrespective of infecting variant and known risk factors for severe COVID-19. Total N and subgenomic RNA N viral loads were highly correlated, suggesting that subgenomic RNA measurements add little information for the purposes of estimating infectivity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)235-244
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Infectious Diseases
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1 2023


  • SARS-CoV-2
  • subgenomic RNA
  • variants of concern
  • viral load


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